Home Magazine Becoming Creative

Brainstorming techniques, Mind Maps… A variety of methods are used to encourage creativity and develop the concepts behind artworks. It is something Artists can learn, developing tools, techniques, knowledge and skills.

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Even artists need to develop their ideas and creativity. This takes time and through their careers, artists evolve defining their practices and how they work. But especially if at the start of their career, often the blank canvas, film or sheet of paper can be intimidating for a young artist.

There are infinite sources of inspiration for a creative flow. Ideas can be taken from various fields: society, new technologies, design, science, individual experiences, history, film, music, literature… For each artist this is a very personal thing.

Throughout Art History different techniques have been used to spawn an artistic flair. Famously breaking with academia and rigorous traditional teaching, the Dadaists and Surrealists are probably the most ground-breaking ones – with techniques such as collage, grattage and frottage or random associations. Cubist Spanish artist Pablo Picasso even said “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” – affirming that drawing from others is essential to make great Art.

Looking towards Art History, at other artists’ work can be great ways of finding topics of interest. Artists can train themselves through brainstorming or mind maps to connect knowledge, concepts and come up with innovative ideas. Indeed, using different techniques which encourage thinking outside the box is a great way for artists to become more creative.


n.d., Artist Anietie Ekanem at Urban Nation Artist in Residence Scholarship Program, 2019, Courtesy of Urban Nation, Museum for Urban Contemporary Art ©2021 URBAN NATION.


Aren’t Artists just born Creative?

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, creativity is “The ability to make or otherwise bring into existence something new, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form.”

We are used to thinking of creativity as a natural gift associated with certain character traits. Something that you either have or you do not, but this is only part of the truth. Generally, creative individuals have high levels of self-awareness and curiosity, a tendency to be independent and nonconformist. They are thought to have a broad range of skills and the ability to apply knowledge to solve problems. All these traits are not something one is born with. 

Artists need to learn how to use their ideas and draw inspiration from the world around them – it is not immediate. Like the definition explains, creativity is the ability of drawing from knowledge in innovative ways.

People can acquire these characteristics over time and with training, learning to trust their own abilities and intuition. Creativity comes with discovery and exercise – knowledge and ability. For example, games, or experiments but even gathering information and reflecting on different perspectives can also contribute to the generation of creative ideas.

Creativity can be fostered in the right environment and with the right tools.


n.d., Artist Hyon Gyon in her studio at Residency Unlimited, n.d., Courtesy of Residency Unlimited ©2014 Residency Unlimited Inc.


The Role of Art Education: Helping or Stopping Artists become Creative

Creativity can be boosted thanks to Art Education. Through the right learning tools, right environment and training anyone can become an empowered and imaginative individual. But negative art education experiences can also hinder.

An inadequate learning environment can even suppress or block creativity. Factors like overcrowded classes, little variety in school and an aim for perfectionism in the classroom can make a student prone to a creative block. This is discouraging rather than encouraging.

By promoting and appreciating efforts and potential, the opposite is achieved. In fact, teachers can have a positive effect on their students’ creativity. Tools can be taught to provide students with skills to trigger new ideas and get over that creative block everyone faces at the start of a project.


n.d., Group Brainstorming Session, n.d., Courtesy of Lebanon County Career and Technology Center ©2018 Lebanon County Career and Technology Center.


Letting ideas simmer, taking inspiration from surroundings, writing ideas down when they come to mind and sketching things in that notebook – these can be the starting point for real artistic research. One has to learn how to get over the initial fear of making mistakes or doing something wrong to actually be creative.

At Art School, students get assigned projects and given a deadline. Sometimes it is difficult to know where to turn to for art ideas or to know how to develop them. In fact, creative skills are often learnt by artists after their education.

Artists acquire and develop design and research skills through their own practices. And of course, extensive experience is essential – but knowing what tools to turn to can help as well.

Developing Ideas: Research in the Arts

We are used to seeing Art and Science as two very separate fields, but more and more contemporary artists are using research methods to structure their work. Some even go to the extent of saying that research is fundamental to art in the same way it is to science.

Indeed, according to UNESCO, research is “any creative systematic activity undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge about humanity, culture and society, and the use of this knowledge to devise new applications” (OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms, 2008).

Like for researchers, building on information and abilities is crucial for artists. In fact, artists by nature question knowledge and the ways we look at things. Acquiring knowledge and then translating it into Art through certain steps, artists can cultivate their creative ideas. 

This urge to research topics in-depth drives many artists – but how should one approach an artistic project? Just as scientific research goes through different phases, artistic project can also follow a structured set of steps.

‘Outlining’ a technique that is usually used in writing can also help structure creative ideas. It is a useful way to organise the steps of a projects. Giving a skeleton, so an introduction, body and conclusion to the artistic research can help to define it.

Design steps can also be followed – especially when working on commission. The systematic method of the design process gives the foundations to the project, making it strong and well thought out. A brief made by the client is the starting point, whether a formal or informal conversation. The research stage then follows when the designer (or artist) gathers information and images. These are developed into ideas in the third step, the concept stage. A presentation to the client follows and then the design is finally developed and actually produced.

Confused ideas about a topic could cause anyone to face difficulties when trying to come up with a good solution or research plan. The concepts and tools need to be analysed to best serve the questions and themes central to an artist’s work. 

Expertise might help, but what if a young artist is stuck? How can this initial block be overcome?


Leonardo da Vinci, A rearing horse, and heads of horses, a lion and a Man, c1503-4, Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.


Rob Harris, Installation view of The Botanical Mind: Art Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree at Camden Art Centre, 2020, Courtesy of Camden Art Centre ©Camden Art Centre / Rob Harris.


Designing Art Projects: How can Artists use Brainstorming for Art Ideas?

Infinite possible tools can help idea generation: using paper, images, videos, collages, digital illustration, reference pictures, photos, visual or word mind maps, spider maps, working through association or by experimenting. It depends of course on the artist, but a fundamental point in designing an artistic research is the definition of the concept behind the work.

An artist does not just sit in front of a canvas and start painting. It is a thought process just as much as it is artistic one.  Like in Science-based research, the initial stages are key. The ideas are put together, defining the themes and concepts. It is the essential starting point to then plan steps of a project or the individual works in a series.

‘What am I tackling? From what point of view?’ But even questions like: ‘What stimulates my curiosity? What is the sensation I get from these objects, subjects? What does it arouse in me? And what does this remind me of?’

Letting thoughts, associations and feelings pour out is liberating and can help an artist in coming up with creative solutions, visual, oral, tactile – sensually engaging pieces. Something which moves from that initial idea to Art which investigates, communicates and which leaves the viewer with new knowledge and more questions.

Brainstorming is a great first step for artists. It is a group creativity technique to make easier for people develop ideas. The aim of brainstorming is to encourage creative and innovative proposals in response to a clear problem statement.


007 Tanuki, Photo of books, 2010, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


In a brainstorming session, it is crucial to not criticise or judge responses. The focus is on coming up with more and more ideas – and the more, the better. Bold, radical and even crazy suggestions are encouraged as proposals are built on. Centrally, quantity leads to quality in this process. If a high number of ideas is produced, it is more probable for the end solution to be innovative and effective.

Originally brainstorming was created to stimulate collaboration in the workspace, but it can be used by individual artists, in artistic collaborations or at the start of community or participative art projects as well. In fact, it fosters a more spontaneous and open way of putting ideas together and give clarity.

Different tools can be used to conceptualise and explore. In fact, standard steps can be followed in those initial phases of an artistic project, when more clarity is needed, and thoughts must be pinned down.

As in classic brainstorming sessions, creating dialogue can be an important part of the process. Even if one prefers to work independently, the influences from others’ practices and learning from different cultures or perspectives can stimulate thought.

As well as creating space for discussion, some techniques can easily be used individually to trigger creativity. One of these is called ‘Listing’ and, as the name says, it involves listing the things one wants to do or the supporting themes of a topic. These are recorded on any available support such as a piece of paper, a computer, an App or post-it notes. 

The list can be made up of just a few words, brief clues, sentences – or even entire paragraphs. The objective is to write down as many ideas as possible, without crossing anything out. As in other brainstorming techniques, it is essential to hold back from self-criticism or judgement.

When all everything is written down, it is time to look back at the list crossing out the ideas which are inadequate and highlighting the most effective ones. This method can help artists develop proposals for a call, project or a residency application, for example.

Another brainstorming technique is called ‘Clustering’. In this method, the first step involves writing a central theme or the topic in the middle and circling it. After this, a cluster of subtopics is created around it. From the central topic others are written down and connected to it through lines or arrows. The major ones being linked directly to the central topic, while the others indirectly. 


n.d., Brainstorming session, n.d., Courtesy of piqsels.com.


In creating the cluster, one has to think of it as branching out – of course, refraining from judgement and letting ideas pour out onto the page. This method is a great way of creating a more structured idea and could be the first step towards a more detailed mind map.

Ideas can be collected by scribbling words on a board, creating a visual collage of connected elements, or shed new light on the themes or subject of the work. In this way the artist can unfold assumptions and pinpoint a critical perspective on the topic.

After this initial gathering of ideas, a detailed creative Mind Map can be used to focus on the outline of the project. Mind maps are usually more exhaustive than clusters and this step is usually conducted when someone already has a deep understanding of the theme or concept. 

These diagrams, hand-drawn or created with mind map software, organise information visually showing the hierarchy and different relations existing between topics. Mind maps can include images, data, definitions. At this point, the subject has been sufficiently examined and there is a personal and informed choice to make on what tools and instruments to use.

Questions are important tools in the creative idea generation. Journalistic questions, such as ‘Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?’ can provide coordinates to a visual art project, film or photography project. Writing them down can help examine topics critically. Like in research, questions narrow down the things which need investigating. This facilitates the process, making it easier for an artist to take the next steps: planning of the artistic project.

From this starting point, the ideas might leap off the paper in a new unexpected direction and with time these tools can help artists become more creative.


n.d., The human brain scan, n.d., Courtesy of www.rfi.fr




Cover image: Ivan T., Mind map on Architecture, 2012, Courtesy of flickr.com

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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